Leopard tales from the past
Nomenclature and description :
The first reference to a leopard in Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon,
is by Robert Knox, a Britisher, who was a captive in the Kandyan Kingdom
in the 17th century. “And although there be both bears and tigers in
these woods, yet they are not so fierce, as commonly to assault people;
travellers and way faring men go more in fear of elephants than of any
other beasts” The tigers Knox refers to are leopards. This is
understandable since it is unlikely that during that day and age Knox
would have seen neither a tiger nor a leopard and as a result was unable
to distinguish between the two.
However, the word panther was also used by many in the old days
referring to leopards. R.S. Agar (1942) says that the word panther is
generic and that big panthers are called leopards.
The earliest mention of a black leopard from Ceylon is by also by
Knox who mentions one in the Royal Zoo at Kandy in the 17th century;
other records are from Badulla and John d’Oyle in 1812, when he states
that an ancestor of the Elapata Nilame of his day had slain one with his
spear at Sitavaka, in the Varigama Atapattu (Deraniyagala, 1943).
“There are two distinct species of the leopard in Ceylon, viz., the
Chetah and the ‘leopard’ or ‘panther.’ There have been many opinions on
the subject, but I have taken particular notice of the two animals, and
nothing can be more clear than the distinction.”
(The chetah is the general name for the small species, but is totally
distinct from the well known chetah or hunting leopard, which does not
exist in Ceylon - Samuel Baker) The chetah is much smaller than the
leopard, seldom exceeding seven feet from the nose to the end of the
tail. He is covered with round black ‘spots’ of the size of a shilling,
and his weight rarely exceeds ninety pounds.
The leopard varies from eight to nine feet in length, and has been
known to reach even ten feet. His body is covered with black ‘rings’
with a rich brown centre - his muzzle and legs are speckled with black
‘spots’ and his weight is from 110 to 170 pounds.
There is little or no distinction between the leopard and the
panther, they are synonymous terms for a variety of species in different
In Ceylon all leopards are termed chetahs; which proceeds from the
general ignorance of the presence of the two species (Baker, 1855)”.
“Leopards are the only formidable members of the tiger race in
Ceylon, and they are neither very numerous nor very dangerous, as they
seldom attack man. By the Europeans, the Ceylon leopard is erroneously
called a cheetah, but a ‘true’ cheetah (felis jubata), the hunting
leopard of India, does not exist in the island (Tennent, 1861)”.
“It is almost unnecessary to say that the animal commonly spoken of
in Ceylon as the ‘Cheetah’ is really the leopard, felis pardus. It is
known to most men that the two are quite distinct, and that the former,
felis jubata, is not found in the island, nevertheless almost everybody,
even including well-known sportsmen, persists in mis-naming the only
large feline we have in our forests. The Sinhalese name of the creature
is kotiya and the Tamil name puli (Clark, 1901)”.
Clark goes on to say “It has been asserted by men whose opinions are
entitled to respect that both the panther and the leopard are to be met
with in the Ceylon forests. The former is said to be the larger and to
have twenty-eight caudal vertebrae and the latter to have only
twenty-two. There appears nothing else in the structure to differentiate
them, and it is difficult to believe that two species of the cat tribe,
not to be distinguished from one another by sight, could live together
in the same forests and remain distinct. Inter-breeding must, in the
course of centuries, have merged both species into one.”
Deraniyagala continues “Recently the Colombo Museum acquired the skin
and skull of another through the assistance of R. M. Davies, the
Government Agent of Sabaragamuwa and his Revenue Officer T.B. Weerakone.
In June 1943, the animal, an adult male, had killed a three-quarter
grown calf at Rambuka, in the Kukul Korale, and fell to a trap gun set
over the kill. The colour is a dark coffee with black spots barely
visible. The length of the beast was 8 ½ feet from the tip of the nose
to the end of the tail.
“Unfortunately the skin was removed in a hurry and dried over smoke,
while the tail was cut off for conversion to a walking stick. Black
leopards also occur in South India and Malaya wherever rain forests
exist and are rarest in Ceylon.
“It is generally the case that albinos are apt to appear side by side
with melanics, but there does not appear to be any record from Ceylon
although our black leopards display a few white flecks”.
The leopards of the low-country are, as a rule, larger than those
found in the hills. Adult males will measure from six to seven feet from
muzzle to tip of tail, stand from twenty-two to twenty-six inches high
and weigh from 100 to 175 lbs. The females are of course smaller than
the males. The ground colour of leopards varies from dark cinnamon red
to rufous fawn with black spots arranged in rosettes and black rings on
the tail. When seen in the shady forest, they appear to be of a dark
grey colour, and if standing still, are not to be easily distinguished.
Old animals will generally be found to have very light skins, the colour
having faded from age, just as grey horses when aged, often become
Black leopards are said to have been shot but are extremely rare.
They are believed to be merely freaks of nature (Clark,1901).
P.E.P.Deraniyagala, writing in the Times of Ceylon Annual of 1963 has
renamed the Ceylon leopard - Panthera pardus fusca as Panthera pardus
kotiya - Deraniyagala, for it differs, as he says, from the Indian form
on the following grounds:-
(a) It is non-aggressive to man, (The Indian leopard is often a
(b) It possess a smaller skull and a longer tail.
(c)Lacks the tendency to develop a terminal tail tuft.
(d) It never produces individuals that are blotched or marble in colour.
E.C. Fernando (1964), a well known taxidermist in his day, commenting
on Deraniyagala’s assertion above, disagrees with Deraniyagala and gives
reasons for this. I shall take up point by point, the items listed.
(a) Non-aggression towards human beings:-It is no great statement of
fact to anybody who knows anything about animals to say that by instinct
all animals are afraid of man.
The question of a leopard becoming a man-eater depends on factors
such as availability of its natural food, the temerity of the villager
etc. Undoubtedly, in Ceylon a cattle lifting leopard is not generally
allowed to get away with it, for sooner or later it will be shot. In
India, however, guns are less readily available and the cattle lifting
leopard is allowed to become bolder and bolder until he might even
savage a human being. The rest follows. To say that a Ceylon leopard is
less aggressive than the Indian is, therefore, not correct.
(b) skull size and tail length:-
I have handled hundreds of skulls of Ceylon leopards and a few of the
Indian ones and can quite safely say that there is no validity for the
statement that the Ceylon leopard has a smaller skull and a longer tail.
Even in Ceylon there are two vaguely separable types.
The massive and stockily built ones, others lankier and more
slenderly built. The size of a leopard, its skull etc., will depend
largely on the availability of food and the age of the specimen under
(c) Tail tufts:-
None of the Indian leopard skins that I had the opportunity of
preparing had any sign of the tail tufts Deraniyagala speaks of.
According to Clark (1901) ‘No other wild animals have a keener sight
or sharper sense of hearing.
It is to these two senses and their wonderful agility that leopards
have to trust to find and secure their food.
There seems little doubt that their power of smell is very poor’.
Phillip Crowe (1956) says that the leopard has virtually no sense of
smell, due primarily to the rancid food he eats, but he has wonderfully
keen eyes and might easily distinguish khaki in the moonlight. [The
reference is to khaki clothes which hunters wear in the jungle]
E.C. Fernando says “Human scent means nothing to a leopard. The
leopard has not got the powers of scent given to other carnivores but is
compensated with extremely good eyesight and hearing.”
Phillips (1942) says that the leopard or panther ranges widely
throughout the country.
He refers to it as panthera pardus fuscus. He goes on to say that the
leopard here does not differ as a species from the leopard in India and
is indistinguishable from that animal.
Like the pig, the leopard is not protected in Ceylon and is shot,
except in reserves, at all seasons, often illegally from cars at night,
when it is blinded by the headlights.
The Wildlife Protection Society is interested in preserving the
leopard and it is hoped sufficient pressure will be brought on the
Government to give this beautiful animal the same respite that the deer
and the peafowl now enjoy.
A six months closed season and a limit of one leopard per person per
year would go far toward building up the breed, and still not work undue
hardship on sportsmen (Crowe, 1956) In the same paper Phillips makes a
very important statement “if this interesting fauna is to be saved from
the early destruction with which much of it is threatened, it will be
necessary to make adequate provision for its survival in each separate
Now 59 years later we find that the leopard population is drastically
reduced and even extirpated from certain parts of the country. One
reason or this is the rapid reduction of its habitat through jungle
clearing for development activities. The reduction of the deer and
sambhur population through poaching is another reason for the decline. A
further reason is that the leopard was systematically hunted for its
pelt, which fetched good prices. It was also killed by hunters for the
‘sport’ that they derived from this shooting.
Fortunately now, due to strict controls, leopard skins are difficult
to market and smuggle out of the country.
However, coming back to Phillips’ proposal, no ‘adequate provisions
for its survival’ has been made except where the leopard’s habitat falls
within the boundaries of national parks or other protected areas.
Unfortunately no systematic scientific research has been carried out at
Accurate information on its ranging behaviour, reproduction, food
preferences and regularity of killing its prey etc. are necessary if
effective conservation plans are to be formulated in the future.
With obvious foresight Phillips says that ‘The only satisfactory and
sure method of preserving a residue of a fauna from eventual
extermination is the allocating inviolable Wild Life Sanctuaries or
National Parks, in which, under the guidance and control of benevolent
humanity, nature is allowed to run its course’.
In 1928 it is reported that R.H.Willis shot a male leopard that
measured 8ft. 2 ¾ ins from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail,
in the Kantalai area.
Those who shot leopards in the past did not observe the leopard
closely in the wild state and make an effort to learn its habits. This
is because the leopard was not tracked down and shot but was shot at a
water hole during the drought or whilst going for a bait that had been
laid out for it.
Shooting of deer was allowed at water holes during the open season.
But they were also shot out of season when, during the dry season, the
animals driven by thirst lose their patience and stealth.
Agar (1942) says that the sawing of a leopard indicates that it is
contented and happy. It does not saw when it is looking for game. He
also says that the leopard is a good ventriloquist and cheats its prey
by pretending it is somewhere else. However, Wickwar (1947) says, “The
harsh grating roar of the leopard is generally heard at night.
“The sound is repeated three times and is similar to the noise made
by sawing an empty packing case, and at close quarters it is rather
“The Sinhalese hunt them for the sake of their extremely beautiful
skins, but prefer taking them in traps and pitfalls, and, occasionally
in spring cages formed of poles driven firmly into the ground, within
which a kid is generally fastened as a bait; the door being held open by
a sapling bent down by the united force of several men, and so arranged
to act as a spring, to which a noose is ingeniously attached, formed of
a plaited deer’s hide.
The cries of the kid attract the leopard, which being tempted to
enter, is enclosed by the liberation of the spring, and grasped firmly
round the body by the noose (Tennent,1861).
Leopard on a tea estate
“The following account of a most unusual incident which recently
occurred on this estate (Ambawela Estate), namely an unprovoked attack
by a leopard on labourers in broad daylight, may be of some interest to
At 10-30 am on Mount Olive section of the estate a woman labourer
named Caderaie was weeding the contract and some 100 feet away 17
labourers were employed on manuring. To quote her own story Caderaie, on
hearing a peculiar growling noise looked up to find a leopard facing her
in the tea. She shouted for help and at that moment the leopard sprang
on her. In warding off the attack she was bitten through the right hand
and received two blows, one badly lacerating her nose, and the other her
Hearing her cries the manuring labourers came round behind the
leopard to head it off from the jungle whilst one of their number,
Sinniah, ran to the nearby lines and got a single barrel shotgun and
proceeded to stalk the leopard in the tea. He was just on the point of
firing when the animal turned and charged him.
He fired and missed and was bowled over by the leopard which bit him
through the calf of the left leg, he also sustained minor injuries to
his right hand.
The leopard then sprang clear and turned to attack him again but with
great courage Sinniah managed to regain his feet, reload and shoot the
leopard through the head thereby saving any further casualties.
All this happened within 100 yards of the main Ambawela P.W.D. road
where I happened to be passing in my car at the time. I immediately
despatched the two injured labourers to my estate hospital where they
were given anti-tetanus injections and I am glad to say both have now
fully recovered from their injuries.
On examination of the leopard I found it to be a male, seven feet in
length. Teeth, claws and coat were in excellent condition and to all
outward appearances the animal was in good health showing no clue to
account for its strange behaviour. As a sign of the times it is worth
noting that after the leopard was skinned labourers cooked and ate the
carcase (sic) (Lemmon, 1944).